"Sacrifice" reminds me of "Bastille Day" in that it's a competently executed routine plot with moments that transcend the overall structure. The problem is just that: It feels like a competently executed routine plot with just a few moments that transcend the whole. It doesn't feel like it's actually happening (which is one of BSG's usual strengths). It exists more often within standard, uninventive storytelling conventions.
At this point in my movie- and TV-viewing life, I'm almost willing to say that any pitch that can be summarized as "hostage situation" should be thrown out by whomever is potentially producing it. At its core, that's what "Sacrifice" is — a "hostage situation." On the Cloud Nine, terrorists take over the bar — which happens to be conveniently occupied by several key Galactica characters — and make their demands. The question is how to deal with the terrorists and how to save the hostages. Describing it like that is probably enough to make your eyes glaze over.
Fortunately, there's a little more to it than that, and it's worth noting that BSG's writers have employed their routine plot in a way that makes sense and relates to key issues on the show. The terrorists are demanding that Admiral Adama turn over Sharon Valerii to them for execution because they think she's a Cylon agent that's working for the Cylons and not the Colonial Fleet. Hell, they may even turn out to be right. You never know with the Cylons, not even with Sharon, who has saved the Galactica on more than one occasion.
The terrorists are led by Sesha Abinell (Dana Delaney), who, we learn in the opening minutes, lost her husband in a recent Cylon attack. She's fed up with the Colonial Fleet's apparent lack of assessing and dealing with threats, and says that if the military is not willing to take action against Valerii, then she and other civilians must take matters into their own hands.
Sesha is a domestic terrorist, plain and simple; she's willing to kill, or even be killed, so long as her cause is advanced. Like any ready-to-be-martyred terrorist, to her the movement is larger than her own life or anyone else's. She's using violence to advance a cause she believes will make things better for the homeland, as opposed to a terrorists who want to simply destroy his enemies. The arrogance of domestic terrorism is, of course, that a few people decide to do what they think is right for all of us, meanwhile using innocent bystanders as currency.
The selfish human complication here is that Sesha has lost someone close to her. But as Adama rightly points out, everyone in the Fleet has lost someone — if not everyone — close to them. What makes Sesha more entitled to carry out terrorist threats and take hostages? The answer, obviously, is nothing. I'm trying to do character analysis here, but there's really not much to say about the personality type that believes they're entitled to demands simply because they've made them.
The reason you can't negotiate with terrorists is very simply, as Tigh puts it, because you'd "open the floodgates." You'd be under siege every week. The story question here is how the people in charge of working the threat behave when the threat becomes personal (a plot thread which propelled an entire season, or perhaps three, of 24). On board the Cloud Nine are Lee, Dualla, Billy, and Ellen Tigh. This makes it a very personal situation for Adama, Roslin, and Tigh as they make decisions on how to handle the crisis from the Galactica. Much of the episode is about stalling for time, as such hostage scenarios ago.
Interesting is how much of a hard line Roslin takes. She seems even less willing to cave — even for the sake of stalling — than does Adama. True, Billy is not her blood the way Lee's is Adama's, but as Roslin correctly points out, Billy is as close a thing to family as she has left in this world. The terrorists know who the hostages are and use that knowledge. Meanwhile, Adama contacts Kara, who just happens to be taking vacation time also on Cloud Nine, so she can infiltrate the bar for recon purposes.
On board the Cloud Nine are the usual standoffs, shootings, etc. One thing that definitely got my attention, however, was the story's massive momentum shift when Kara ends up in the bar and gets forced into a shootout with the terrorists. In the confusion, she accidentally shoots Lee in the chest ("It was friendly fire," she later tells Adama, in tears). Every once in a while something happens in a routine plot that makes you sit up and become reinvested in the story, and this is one of those moments.
Such moments are the exception to the rule, however. "Sacrifice" is more often reluctant to deviate from formula. Possibly the most true-to-BSG moments are the ones that focus on character rather than plot, like the opening sequence where Billy proposes marriage to Dualla, who, in a scene of agonizing discomfort, turns him down. Naturally, it follows that Dee and Lee — who have been the corners in the Dee-Billy-Lee triangle for several episodes now — will shortly thereafter unexpectedly run into Billy at the bar on the Cloud Nine just before the terrorists take it over. Billy's words to Dualla here are even more agonizing, because they are in response to a perceived betrayal, and have the ring of truth. I'd imagine I'd be pretty pissed too, if I were in his position.
The other unexpected moment is when Billy is shot and killed in the episode's climactic struggle for control of the bar, when the marines storm in and the machine guns come out. Billy has been on this series since the beginning, and killing him here is what earns the story its title, since most of the characters in the episode don't have to make any real sacrifices. If this episode truly had the convictions of its title, Adama would have to let Lee bleed to death rather than negotiate with the terrorists, but obviously we are boxed in here by the fact that we can't go killing off our lead characters (just the supporting ones).
What does not play as a surprise is Adama's attempted shell game, where he pretends he's going to hand Sharon over to Sesha and instead gives her the corpse of the Sharon killed in "Resistance." This will instantly be obvious to any audience member (who has been paying attention) from the moment Adama announces his terms and hangs up the phone. My thinking is that it should've been obvious to Sesha as well, since the other Sharon's death is a matter of public record.
The episode's best payoff is the heartbreaking scene where Roslin visits Billy's body in the morgue. Roslin, who maintained a tough, rightful hard line about not caving in to terrorists during the crisis, is seen at the end as an individual who has truly paid the price of those convictions. It's a credit to Mary McDonnell's performance that all sides of Roslin's persona exist believably, seamlessly, and in no way in contradiction with each other. They are a part of a realized whole.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of the scene where Dualla visits Lee in sickbay. Clearly, this is a woman who has reached a conclusion about who she's really in love with. Maybe that's an easier conclusion to reach when the other guy is lying on a slab in a freezer. Yes, relationships can be messy and sometimes you crash through one with no idea where it's going or why, but this to me feels a little nebulous, like the writers just sort of concocted the Dualla/Lee thing — even though, yes, there were hints of it as far back as "Resistance."
I guess that's as a good note as any to end on regarding "Sacrifice." This is an okay show with some nice moments, but it's not a deep or complex one, and it doesn't feel ironclad in its romantic motivation. And I guess every once in a while a supporting character has to die to remind you that maybe no one is safe.